President Barack Obama said Sunday he was honored to sign a bill to provide aid to survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks and first responders who became ill working in the ruins at the World Trade Center.
"We will never forget the selfless courage demonstrated by the firefighters, police officers and first responders who risked their lives to save others," Obama said in a statement. "I believe this is a critical step for those who continue to bear the physical scars of those attacks."
"At long last, the President's signature has ended our nine-year struggle to address the 9/11 health crisis. The Zadroga law will save lives and fulfills our moral obligation to care for those who rose to the defense of America in a time of war," said Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney.
"This is a great victory for the heroes of September 11th, the firefighters, police officers and construction workers. Justice is finally being served," added Republican Rep. Peter King.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was named after a police officer who died of a respiratory disease he contracted during the 9/11 rescue operations. The bill was one of the last measures Congress passed before adjourning in December.
Some Republicans tried to block the measure, saying they were concerned with how to pay for the bill. They dropped their opposition after lawmakers struck a compromise to reduce the costs.
The measure was a product of a compromise involving Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Schumer and Gillibrand had sought $6.2 billion and keeping the compensation fund open for 10 years.
The compromise was reached after Democrats scheduled a showdown test vote for Dec. 22 and Republicans countered by threatening to run a 30-hour clock before allowing final Senate and House votes on the bill. That would have required keeping both the Senate and House in session for votes on Christmas Eve.
The bill gained momentum with help from cable TV personalities. Among the biggest champions of the package were Fox News anchor Shepard Smith and comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who championed the bill and lashed its GOP foes on his Comedy Central TV program "The Daily Show."
The $4.2 billion measure will be paid for with a fee on some foreign companies that get U.S. government procurement contracts.
There was no signing ceremony for the bill; Obama signed it privately at the rented oceanfront home in Hawaii where he's staying with his family.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama had 10 days to sign the bill after its passage, a window that would have closed by the time the president returned to Washington Tuesday. Because the White House didn't receive the official bill until after Obama departed Washington Dec. 22, Burton said a staff member who was headed to Hawaii after the president carried it here for his signature.
Nearly 16,000 responders and 2,700 people living near ground zero are currently sick and receiving treatment, supporters of the measure said. More than 40,000 responders are in medical monitoring, backers said.
Researchers have found that people exposed to the thick clouds of pulverized building materials at the trade center site have high rates of asthma and sinus problems. Many firefighters also suffered a reduction in lung power.
Doctors aren't sure, though, exactly how many people are ill, and scientific doubt persists about just how many of the hundreds of illnesses are actually linked to the trade center dust. Doctors still don't know whether there is any connection between the dust and potentially fatal illnesses like cancer.